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The Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

Originally published as
H. H. the Dalai Lama and Berzin, Alexander. The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1997

Order this book directly from Snow Lion Publications

Part IV: A Discourse on The Autocommentary to "A Root Text for Mahamudra"

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Dharamsala, India, March 1982
translated by Alexander Berzin
July 1996

Session Nine

Approaching the Challenge of Taming the Mind

The root for all actual attainments of good qualities is the decisive realization of renunciation, bodhichitta and a correct view of reality. At our present level, it may be difficult to have the full determination to be free that constitutes true renunciation and the totally dedicated heart that constitutes true bodhichitta. We may only have a small understanding and experience of them. Yet, as beginners, we need at least to appreciate how beneficial renunciation and bodhichitta are for taming the mind.

A decisive understanding of a correct view of reality in terms of voidness is also extremely difficult to gain. Without it, we are unable to undermine and eventually rid ourselves of our disturbing emotions and attitudes such as greed, attachment and anger. Firm renunciation and strong bodhichitta, however, are the foundation that supports and aids our gaining of this correct view. Therefore it is extremely important to try to develop, as much as possible, the understanding and realization of renunciation, bodhichitta and a correct view of reality. When the realization of these three is stable, it acts as a firm and reliable ground out of which success in the practice of tantra steadily grows.

The mahamudra teachings are extremely profound. Although it is very helpful and important to learn about them, just to know about them is not enough. We must try to put them into practice as much as we can. This is important. Although our minds may not be very well tamed or disciplined, and we may find it difficult to practice these teachings, we must persevere without becoming discouraged or denigrating ourselves as being inadequate. Taming the mind is a slow and arduous process that requires a great deal of time and patience. It is the ultimate challenge. If we conceive of our practice as an extremely long-term process, we do not become easily discouraged.

Continuous practice with continuing effort is totally essential when trying to implement Buddha's teachings. Inner development naturally takes time and cannot be achieved within a short period. It is quite normal and totally to be expected, as I have confirmed from my own limited practice, that gaining even the smallest level of actual experience of what the teachings describe requires many years of unbroken hard work. So naturally we must make effort continuously, with courage and determination.

There is no satisfactory alternative course in life than devoting ourselves to self-improvement based on teachings that are founded on reason. Leading our life along such a course benefits not only ourselves, but society as a whole. Everyone wishes for world peace and happiness. If everyone strives toward this goal, it is definitely achievable. Therefore it is worthwhile and reasonable to make effort in this direction. But without genuine mental peace internally, it is unrealistic to hope that we can achieve genuine world peace externally. This is completely clear. Thus it is appropriate to devote ourselves to achieving inner peace, and for this there are the profound methods of mahamudra.

Searching for the "Me" To Be Refuted

Last night you were given the task to go home and look for the "me" to be refuted. Have you found it or not? Is it something very impressive looking or is it something pathetic looking? Most of us, when neither inspecting nor scrutinizing, possess a strong sense of "me, me, me." But if, when all of a sudden we develop a strong feeling of "me," we investigate and search for this "me," we discover that it is very illusive. It seems to have disappeared. When we search for something that we thought was there, most of us probably discover it is not there at all. Some of us, on the other hand, might feel that this "me" is somewhere in our head behind our eyes. This is because, out of our five senses, our visual perceptions are the most powerful and compelling. Sometimes others who look for this "me" come up with a blank darkness.

But when we really investigate and scrutinize how things exist, we discover that they are simply what can be labeled by names or concepts. Consider the case of a person, "me." Like a snake that can be labeled onto a striped rope in the dark, without actually being that rope, a person is simply what can be labeled onto aggregate factors of experience as its basis for labeling, but without actually being those aggregates. The autocommentary cites a sutra to the effect that Buddha sees all wandering beings existing as who they are simply by virtue of their names. They exist simply as the persons to whom their names refer. And, in fact, all beings actually abide in this manner in which Buddha omnisciently sees them. All phenomena lack any existence other than one established simply in relation to names.

Although the manner in which all phenomena exists is like this, the manner in which our mind gives rise to an appearance of them is just to the contrary. They do not appear to be merely something the existence and identity of which are established by the fact that they can be labeled to be what they are simply by conceptual thought or mental labeling. They appear as if they were establishing their true existence by themselves, by their own power, from their own side. Because our mind, due to its beginningless habit of being unaware of the actual manner in which everything exists, makes things appear in this manner and, due to its continuing lack of awareness, apprehends them to exist as such, our mind implies something about these appearances. It implies actual objects existing from their own side that correspond to what it makes appear. Because of this implication, impulses of karma arise to deal with life on the basis of being deceived by our mind's discordant appearance-making. Enacting these impulses, we cause ourselves to wander through uncontrollably recurring rebirths, experiencing the suffering that our unawareness creates.

The manner in which our mind produces an appearance of things as if existing in a fashion discordant to the way in which they actually exist is the manner of appearance-making that is to be refuted, nullified and stopped. The way in which our mind implies true existence, then, is by implying that things are just as they appear. It implies this by believing that they truly exist in the manner in which it merely fabricates and projects an appearance of them as having. It believes them to exist in the manner in which it contrives.

Consider any appearance to which our mind gives rise, whether it be of mountains, fences, pastures, houses or whatever. Although our mind gives rise to an appearance of "this" or "that," it makes things appear as though, from their own side, through their own power, they were establishing their own existence and identity as "this" or "that," ultimately findable as such in the place where our mind makes them appear to be. Thus our mind does not simply give rise to an appearance of them, it makes mountains, fences, pastures, houses and so on appear as though their existence as such goes far beyond being merely by virtue of the conventions of the mind that has them as its object. It makes them appear to exist as these things through their own power, independent of the conventions of the mind that cognizes them. This is the manner of appearance-making that is to be refuted and stopped.

In summary, the manner in which our mind implies the actual existence of what is to be refuted is with the attitude thinking that these objects of mind, such as mountains, fences and so on, are actually those things over there, existing by virtue of their true and inherent identity as "this" or "that," just as they appear to be existing there as such, from their own side, through their own power, not relying on anything other than themselves to establish their existence and identity. Such a mind that implies the actual existence of this impossible manner of existence that is to be refuted, then, is the mind that apprehends true and inherent existence.

When we investigate and search, for example for a person, such as "me," and try to discern a "me" establishing its own existence, by itself, in some manner beyond being merely what a mind can produce a conventional appearance of, we do not find such a "me." This does not mean, however, that there is no such thing as "me." A "me" who can bring about benefit or harm definitely exists. Despite the fact that we cannot ultimately find this "me" when we search for it, nevertheless this thing in our thoughts, that we do not find when we investigate and search for it, is something that does arise when we do not inspect or scrutinize closely – we definitely find some "me" in our thoughts at that time. No matter how much we search, however, no phenomenon whatsoever remains as something that can be ultimately found when we search with a mind that is not satisfied with its being merely something that mind can give rise to an appearance of. There is a great difference, then, between searching for a truly and inherently existent "me" in or on its basis for labeling with a mind that inspects and scrutinizes deepest, ultimate truth, and searching for a mere "me" with a mind that validly sees conventional truths. The former mind cannot find its object, whereas the latter finds it, for instance sitting in this room, here and not there.

This being the case, we can decide for sure that when we search for something with logic and reason, the conclusion we arrive at is correct that the thing we are searching for is something ultimately unfindable. Despite that fact, when our mind, in an impromptu manner, while not inspecting or scrutinizing closely, gives rise to an appearance of this thing or that, it produces an appearance of it as if ultimately findable, truly and inherently existing under its own power. When our mind gives rise to this type of discordant appearance of something, it makes it appear as though if we were to search for this or that object on its own side, there would be something findable there that would become increasingly clearer, and proportionately more firm, the closer we inspect and scrutinize. This is the manner of existence with which our mind normally makes things appear and implies is real. This is to be refuted so that, through familiarity, we eventually rid ourselves of the habit of unawareness that causes our mind to fabricate, contrive and make such nonsense appear.

Recognizing the Mode of Appearance-Making To Be Refuted

Holding with mindfulness the manner of existence that appears in our thoughts, we examine and investigate this impromptu manner of appearance. When it arises, our mind gives rise to an appearance of something existing in a manner of existence that is different from that which we come to when we examine and investigate closely. Reflecting on this, we gain a little more clarity about this deceptive appearance. It seems as though it is not just our mind that, in an impromptu manner, is making it appear as though what it is producing an appearance of were something ultimately findable, despite its not being so. It seems as though there really is an actual object ultimately findable there, standing on top of where our mind makes it appear to be, causing itself to appear findably there because it actually is so. This is nonsense. It does not correspond to reality.

Nevertheless, although truly existent phenomena, such as our person or "me," cannot ultimately be found when we search for them, yet it is definite that there is someone existing who can bring about benefit or harm. When we inspect and scrutinize, however, looking for someone or something with a mode of existence that goes beyond its being merely something mind is making appear, we cannot find anything. We cannot locate the place of existence of a truly and inherently existing person or object findable in the depths of what mind is producing an appearance of. We cannot locate the place for its existence on the side of some phenomenon that we suppose this appearance to correspond to.

Therefore, phenomena do not establish their own existence. We can only ascribe phenomena existence through the circumstances of, or in terms of, something other than themselves – for example their names. Because there is no place for some findable, inherent self-nature on the side of phenomena establishing the existence of these phenomena through its own power, and because the existence of these phenomena can only be established dependent on circumstances or factors other than themselves, we can correctly conclude that phenomena are not established as existing by virtue of themselves, but only by virtue of what is other than themselves. Thus we arrive at all things being existent simply imputedly. In other words, all phenomena depend simply on imputation or mental labeling in order to establish their existence and identity.

We may not, at first, be able to understand existence in terms simply of mental labeling on a subtle level. But still we use whatever level of understanding we gain of this type of existence to scrutinize the manner of appearance of things to which our mind normally gives rise. Our mind does not at all make things arise with a manner of appearance that their existence and identity are established from the side of the mental labels for them, but rather that they are established from their own side, unimputedly, through their own power, by virtue of themselves. We must come to recognize this with precision and clarity. Such recognition is called "recognizing starkly the manner of appearance-making that is to be refuted, nullified and stopped."

Differentiating the Mode of Appearance-Making of Conventional Reality from the Mode of Appearance-Making To Be Refuted

In A Supplement to [Nagarjuna's "Root Stanzas on] the Middle Way, " Chandrakirti has explained seven ways to scrutinize phenomena – are they ultimately findable as being the same as, different from, the possessor of, what relies upon, what is relied upon by, the mere collection or network of all the parts of, or the shape or structure of their basis for labeling? When we search for phenomena in this seven-fold manner within the context of mental labeling, we cannot find conventionally existing phenomena, such as vases and so forth, established as ultimately existing in any of these impossible ways. But, when we do not inspect or scrutinize, our mind does give rise to an appearance of conventionally existing phenomena, which are things that exist, and are what they conventionally are, simply inasmuch as they can be mentally labeled as such by virtue of conventions. When we realize this, we gain even stronger conviction in their total lack, or voidness of being established as knowable objects that are not simply what can be mentally labeled as what they are by virtue of conventions. In other words, when we realize that what mind gives rise to a conventional appearance of could not arise to our mind as what it is other than by virtue of its being merely what can be mentally labeled as that, relative to circumstances – despite our mind's making it appear discordantly as existing otherwise – we gain even stronger conviction in its total lack of existing as what it is by virtue of itself, not merely by virtue of what can be designated by names.

Changkya Rolpay-dorjey has explained that some people think that no matter what appearance our mind produces of conventional phenomena, we must preserve such minds and the appearances they give rise to – even should our mind produce an appearance of things as if they were something establishing their existence from somewhere ultimately findable in their depths. These people assert appearance-making and appearance in general to be the measure of what exists conventionally. They believe them to be what establishes conventional existence. They regard appearance-making and appearances in general as the creator of all conventionalities. As they consider them to be the foundation or basis for the occurrence of cause and effect, they think they must be left alone.

On the basis of this faulty way of thinking, these people imagine that the set of what conventionally exists is constituted exclusively by ultimately findable appearance-making minds that establish conventionalities and objects corresponding to the appearances of ultimate findability they produce, and assert that these are not be refuted, nullified or stopped, otherwise we are thrown to a position of nihilism. If, accepting such an assertion, we fabricate a manner of existence and designate it "existence established by a defining characteristic," or "by an inherent nature," or "from its own side," in order to account for the valid mental labeling of conventions, and, insisting it not be refuted, designate as the "object to be refuted" existence independent of what mind can make appear on the basis of objects having such a self-nature, we have merely contrived an object to be refuted and given it this name. Even if we were to refute such an object with valid lines of reasoning, we hold nothing but a fantasized view of reality.

In fact, there are two types of conventional appearance-making minds – those that produce accurate appearances of how things exist – ultimately unfindable – corresponding to verifiable fact, and those that produce distorted appearances of how they exist – ultimately findable – not corresponding to anything real. Correspondingly, there are both accurate and distorted conventional appearances. The set of what conventionally exists is not constituted exclusively by discordant appearance-making minds and does not even include the objects implied by these discordant appearances. In refuting them, we have not emptied out the entire set of what conventionally exists.

The problem is that, at our present stage, our mind's accurate manner of appearance-making of conventional phenomena and manner of appearance-making of them that is to be refuted occur simultaneously with both mixed together. Like milk and water, it is very difficult to separate them out from each other. When our mind gives rise to an accurate appearance of conventional phenomena, it does so in no way other than also at the same time fabricating an appearance of them that is to be refuted. Thus it gives rise to the two appearances mixed together. Therefore it is very difficult to differentiate and know, "This is the manner of appearance-making and appearance of conventional phenomena as being what they are by virtue simply of mental labeling with names" and "That is the manner of appearance-making and appearance that is to be refuted." In fact, the latter obscures the former to such an extent, we are normally only aware of the latter.

But when, on the basis of inspecting and scrutinizing phenomena, we have, slowly, in stages, come to a nullification and stopping of what is to be refuted – true and inherent existence and minds that make things appear to exist in this purely fantasized, impossible manner – then, in the place left behind by the nullification of what is to be refuted, we are left with a mind that gives rise only to an accurate appearance, for example, of the mere conventional "me" who can bring about benefit or harm. It is only in this way, from personal experience of apprehending such a "me," that we are able to know decisively the conventional "me" that exists simply as what can be labeled by names.

The Analogy of Dreams and Illusions

The autocommentary next quotes Kaydrub Norzang-gyatso, who has cited the example of sights in dreams and of magical illusions. Except for their being something that merely our mind produces an appearance of, simply before its own face, dreams and so forth cannot be established as existing, even to the slightest extent, as separate from this. Similarly, with respect to all knowable phenomena, an existence on top of, or from the depths of, any of them as something that does not rely on being simply what can be mentally labeled – an existence of any of them with an identity as "this" or "that" that is not established by virtue simply of the fact that they can be labeled as such by conventions or names – is the subtle object to be refuted. So long as we do not nullify this subtle object to be refuted, we continue to wander through uncontrollably recurring rebirths. Therefore, we must familiarize ourselves with the total lack of true and inherent identities.

The Seventh Dalai Lama, Kelzang-gyatso, has elaborated on this example and point. When we are asleep, we experience in our dreams various appearances arising, such as of mountains, fences, pastures, livestock, houses and so on. Similarly, we experience various appearances of illusion arising through our visual perception being under the effect of a conjurer's spell. These are merely things that our mind makes appear. There are no actual objects at the basis where these appearances are arising that are establishing their existence. Their existence as appearances is established simply in terms of mind's mentally labeling or imputing them. Likewise, all phenomena – whether self or other, samsara or nirvana – are simply what can be mentally labeled by conventions and names. This is because nothing can ultimately be found existing as what can be labeled either in, on, or as, its basis for labeling. A solid mountain cannot ultimately be found in, on or as the appearance of one in a dream. Likewise a solid "me" cannot ultimately be found in, on or as the transitory network of aggregates – a body, mind and so forth – as the basis for labeling one.

As ordinary beings, the cognitions of our six networks of consciousness – visual, mental and so on – are adulterated by our unawareness or ignorance. Thus no matter what our mind makes appear, it gives rise to an appearance of it as though it existed establishing itself as something ultimately findable on the basis that is the location of its appearing. We can see this if we look at our own mind and our personal experience of how things appear to us. The way our mind makes things appear is exactly like this. What appears to us is what our deceived mind, adulterated by unawareness, makes appear. This manner of existence of things as if they were sitting there, being what they are from their own side, is the subtle object to be refuted. This being the case, we must cut from the face of our mind all appearance-making and apprehensions of this fantasized, impossible mode of existence. We do this by refuting and nullifying it completely, without leaving even a trace of it left.

Refutation of the "Me" To Be Refuted

The First Panchen Lama now turns to the discussion of the refutation of the person or "me" to be refuted. If a person were to exist independently, through its own power, by virtue of itself, able to hold its own and stand on its own feet, then when we search for such an inherently findable person, we should experience one becoming increasingly clear. Therefore, we must inspect and scrutinize closely.

In A Precious Garland, Nagarjuna has discussed this process clearly. When we search for our person or the individual who is our "self," we first inspect and scrutinize the aggregate factors of experience that are the basis relying upon which we, as a person, are mentally labeled or imputed, and which constitute the conventional location for our existence as a person. We cannot find a person within their "earth" or solid constituent factors, nor in their water, fire or wind constituents. Nor is a person the constituent of space that encompasses the four physical constituents. Neither is it the consciousness, nor the collection or network of all these constituents taken together. No matter what we bring to mind, none of these constitute, even in the slightest way, a basis with the defining characteristic making it a person.

But, then again, there is nothing separate or apart from the aggregate factors of our experience that constitutes, on its own, a basis with the defining characteristic making it "me." If there were such a thing as a "me" existing in the manner in which our mind gives rise to an appearance of one, as if it were something establishing its existence through its own power – if such a "me" actually existed – it could only exist at the location of our five aggregate factors of experience. We can decide for sure that it could not possibly exist somewhere else, away from the location of what constitutes our experience from moment to moment. But when we inspect and scrutinize the earth, water, fire, wind, space and consciousness constituents of our aggregate factors, we cannot find among them even the slightest thing that is a person. Not only that, but neither their collection or network, nor their continuum over time, nor anything else about them, is a basis with the defining characteristic making it "me."

Tsongkhapa has explained this point in an even more potent manner in Totally Clarifying the Intentions [of Chandrakirti's "Supplement to (Nagarjuna's 'Root Stanzas on) the Middle Way'"]. In twilight, a thought may arise that a striped rope on the ground is a snake. But there is nothing on top of or inside this rope – none of its parts, nor their collection, nor the rope's continuum over time – to which we could possibly apply the name "snake" as a basis with the defining characteristic making it a snake. The snake is merely what can be designated by a mental label alone. Like this example, a thought of "me" may arise on the basis of the aggregate factors of our experience. But there is nothing about these aggregates as the basis for labeling – not any of their parts, nor the collection or network of their parts, nor their continuum over time, nor something separate and apart from them – which is a basis with the defining characteristic making it "me," to which we could possibly apply the name "me." That being the case, this "me" is nothing more than simply what can be designated by a mental label on the basis of aggregate factors of experience. This formulation is very powerful.

In the autocommentary, the First Panchen Lama now quotes extensively from Shantideva's Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. Like Nagarjuna, Shantideva has surveyed all the parts of the body, not only its constituent elements, but its organs, limbs, shape and so forth, discounting each of them as possibly being a person, or a basis with the defining characteristic making it a person. Thus no aspect or part of the basis for labeling a person is a basis with the defining characteristic making it the person who is being labeled. If it were, then as Nagarjuna has noted in Root Stanzas on the Middle Way, the fault would arise that what is being labeled and the basis for its labeling would be identical. This would imply that what is taken, such as a body, mind and so forth of a particular rebirth, and the one who takes them are identical, as would be the parts of something and what has those parts.

Because a basis with the defining characteristic making it an individual, conventional "self" can be included within the set of different types of consciousness – a particular mind-stream, for example, conventionally constitutes an individual being – many people cite, in an impromptu manner, something that could be included within the set of different types of consciousness – for example, mental consciousness or alayavijnana, foundational mind – as being a basis with the defining characteristic making it an inherently existent, ultimately findable "self." Or, because the aggregate factors of our experience include affecting variables that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor those that are ways of being aware of something, and because the conventional "self" is included within this category of phenomena, some people believe this "self" included within the aggregates is an inherently findable "self."

But if a "self," as what can be labeled, were also ultimately to be the basis for its labeling as part of the aggregates, then, as Nagarjuna has pointed out, there would be the fault of the whole being identical with one of its parts. On the basis of our everyday mind that arises simultaneously with each moment, the thought arises, "This is my mind. I shall use my mind." Thus, our everyday mind differentiates "me" as a user of mind, from "mind" as that which it uses. They are, conventionally, two distinct things. But if we set the mind or some type of consciousness as the ultimately findable person, then we are setting as the whole one of its parts.

Total Absorption on Voidness Which Is Like Space

As a result of our scrutiny and analysis, we eventually gain a decisive understanding that this "me" that our mind fabricates an appearance of as being solidly existent does not refer to anything real at all. As a result of not having found anything when we searched, we become totally convinced of this from the depths of our mind and the bottom of our heart. When a mind arises of total conviction that there is no such thing as what this appearance seems to be, it gives rise to a non-affirming nullification. This is the bare absence that is the mere nullification, or refutation, or cessation, of the object to be refuted and nullified – this mode of appearance-making and appearance. Other than that, it gives rise to the appearance of nothing else. When we experience this, we totally absorb our concentration on this bare absence, without losing the strength of our manner of apprehension of it as being the total absence, or voidness, of true and inherent existence.

This is the way to meditate with total absorption on voidness which is like space. Just as space is the lack of anything tangible or obstructive on the side of some material object that could impede its physical existence in three dimensions, voidness is the total lack of impossible modes of existence that could impede the conventional existence of any phenomenon. When we first experience this total absence, if we have not thoroughly familiarized ourselves with a correct view, we become frightened. But if we are fully accustomed to it, we experience great relief and joy.

Subsequently Attained Deep Awareness That Everything Is Like Illusion

When we rise from this total absorption, there is definitely "me" obviously sitting there who receives benefit or harm. No matter how much we insist that there is no "me" who was just meditating, in the end we have to concede, with a hundred-percent certainty, that there definitely is a "me" who was meditating, a "me" who wishes now to eat, a "me" who needs to go to sleep. We are, however, also totally convinced that there is no such thing as a "me" that exists in the way in which our mind normally gives rise to an appearance of one. We are deeply aware that what our mind makes appear as "me" is simply a "me" that exists merely as what can be labeled by virtue of names, like an illusion.

There are three criteria for establishing what actually exists on the conventional level. It must be well known to a mind that cognizes conventional phenomena, not be undermined by another mind that validly cognizes conventional phenomena, and not be undermined by a mind of awareness that scrutinizes and analyzes deepest truth. In other words, there are no phenomena that cannot be designated or categorized as what can be mentally labeled or imputed. But not everything that can be labeled necessarily corresponds to what exists. This is where we must take care. Because mind can give rise to an appearance of something totally insane, it is not sufficient for something to be well known to a conceptual mind in order for it to qualify as a conventional phenomenon. The actual thing that is well known must not be undermined by another mind that validly cognizes conventional phenomena. Because such a mind also cognizes appearances of phenomena as existing truly and inherently, however, the second criteria is also insufficient. Therefore what is well known to a mind that validly cognizes conventional phenomena must also not be undermined by a mind of awareness that scrutinizes the ultimate, deepest way in which things exist. These criteria define the borderline between what exists and what does not exist conventionally. What exists conventionally is like an illusion, not the same as illusion.

Thus, after we arise from our total absorption on voidness which is like space, we supplement our understanding with subsequently attained deep awareness that everything is like illusion. This subsequent awareness enhances our later practice of this total absorption, and that, in turn, likewise enhances our further subsequent deep awareness. Thus total absorption on voidness which is like space and subsequently attained deep awareness that everything is like illusion mutually support and enhance one another.